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'Massive' identity theft ring could affect 1 in 20 Utahns, police say

SALT LAKE CITY — What started as a midsize marijuana bust turned into a year-and-a-half-long investigation that resulted in eight federal indictments and the dismantling of a "massive" identity theft ring, authorities said Friday.

"This is, from my impression, one of the most complex identity theft operations certainly that we've ever encountered in our organization," Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder announced. "The level of complexity of this investigation cannot be understated."

On Friday, the sheriff and members of the U.S. Attorney's Office announced that a federal grand jury had returned a 56-count indictment against eight people, with the charges ranging from conspiracy to commit bank fraud to identity theft to drugs.

The group is accused of obtaining personal information — including the Social Security numbers and dates of birth of more than 143,000 people. That means approximately 1 in every 20 Utahns has the potential of becoming victims of identity theft by members of this group, said Diana Hagen, the first assistant U.S. attorney for Utah.

"The volume is just staggering," Winder emphasized.

How the group came to be in possession of that database of information was still being investigated Friday.

"The format of the database appears to suggest that this came from a medical insurance provider or perhaps a company providing services to a medical insurance provider (more than five years ago), just because of the way the information is organized," Hagen said.

With that database, investigators believe the group looked at individual credit profiles and sold information containing the best credit profiles to co-conspirators, said Unified Police Sgt. Scott VanWagoner.

From there, fraudulent accounts were opened in at least four banks, according to charging documents, as well as at stores like Scheels, Verizon Wireless, Cricket Wireless, Dillards, Kohl's and R.C. Willey, where "very nice things" were purchased, said Richard Daynes of the U.S. Attorney's Office.

The financial loss due to the identity theft ring is more than $200,000, according to prosecutors.

Although the group had access to more than 143,000 names, approximately 100 are believed to have actually had their personal information compromised, Hagen said. Those who have been confirmed as victims of identity theft have been contacted by authorities, she said.

The investigation into the operation began in the summer of 2015 when Unified police officers served a search warrant on a Millcreek home suspected of operating a marijuana growing operation. Marijuana was found, but detectives also quickly realized they had stumbled upon something much bigger, Winder said.

With assistance from federal prosecutors and the U.S. Postal Service, investigators began to untangle the complicated web of crimes.

Danny Lechtenberg, 36, of Taylorsville, is the alleged ring leader, according to prosecutors. It was his house where the warrant was served. Others indicted include Jesse Ryan Bell, 30, of Taylorsville; Christopher Wayne Cummings, 33, of Taylorsville; Jody Ray Bledsoe, 44, of Taylorsville; Christopher Winterton, 35, of Taylorsville; Carolina Cueller Morton, 53, of Salt Lake City; Donald Leslie Peck, 51, of Salt Lake City; and Tina Marie Schilling, 57, of West Valley City.

The group is believed to have been involved in drug distribution and money laundering in addition to identity theft, Winder said. Fueling their own drug addictions was one of the main factors behind the crimes, Hagen added.

Prosecutors and sheriff's investigators say in order to prevent identity theft, residents should check their credit and invoices routinely, and have their banks notify them whenever new accounts are set up in their name.

For those who were not contacted by federal authorities but are concerned their information may have been compromised, a national call center has been set up. The number and other information can be found at justice.gov/usao-ut.